A spacecraft tool is now improving car safety by stress-testing many of the internal computer systems to be sure they work well when the car is on the road.
Designed to test how computers on spacecraft react to cosmic radiation, the Xception software used by ESA proved to be the right tool to check the tiny computer controlling a car dashboard display.
This rather advanced space technology is now being extended to help guarantee the faultless performance of safety-critical car systems, like the brakes.
Features like navigation, cruise control, parking sensors and engine and gearbox management, also driven by microcomputers, could be the next to be scrutinised.
“Your car is probably the most technologically advanced machine you own,” comments Luis Gargaté, from Critical Software, the Portuguese company that designed Xception.
“It has up to 60 tiny processors, little brains, squeezed under the bonnet, in the engine, the mirrors, wheel rims, petrol tank, seat cushions, headrests, bumpers. And the software controlling each system is complex.”
With the automotive industry needing to put safety first and reduce the number of recalls, the steady computerisation of cars makes it imperative that every processor works faultlessly.
“Just imagine a sensor in the engine malfunctions and tells both the dashboard and the computer controlling the engine the temperature is normal when the truth is that it is overheating,” suggests Luis.
“The computer needs to understand the sensor is misbehaving and switch on the temperature light nonetheless.“
To ensure the processor always runs smoothly even when things go wrong, teams use ‘fault injection’. They feed erroneous information to the software, pushing it almost to breaking point, to monitor how it behaves in unexpected situations. It’s a technique they refined for spacecraft.
Testing the robustness of both hardware and software is nothing new for ESA, who always demands the highest quality standards.
“Once a spacecraft has left Earth, investigating and correcting an failure can be a lengthy and painful exercise, sometimes even impossible,” explains ESA’s Davide Moretti. “So, we have extremely rigorous procedures to make sure the software continues functioning reliably in the harshest conditions.”
“When radiation passes through a computer it can ruin your data, forcing the control software to misbehave momentarily. If that happens to software controlling a mission-critical function, it can really upset the behaviour of your satellite.
The company developed Xception to simulate unplanned scenarios and monitor how the spacecraft might react. Is the software robust enough to understand there was a glitch in the data and recover?
Since then, it has helped to qualify numerous satellites for space, including CryoSat to observe Earth’s ice and Swarm to monitor our magnetic field.